It's a busy week as we head towards winter intersession finals...
Lots of good stuff out there this week on feminism and body image. Mind the Gap, a Welsh feminist blogging collective, has put up a series of terrific posts this week on the subject of women and bodies. A number of powerful, first-person accounts from the frontlines, as well as some interesting feminist analysis. Let me, in that regard, also recommend this recent post from Jen at Righteous Revolution, Theorizing Breasts.
Today in my women's history class, we'll have our last discussion about "body history." I'll be talking about the recent shift towards the ideal of the toned and athletic female body. Forty years ago, adult and adolescent women dieted -- but rarely if ever joined gyms to tone and define their bodies. The coming of women's sports (especially thanks to Title IX), seems to have inadvertently helped to make the perfect body even more elusive. Joan Brumberg reports that it is only in the 1970s that girls start to mention "working out" as part of their "body projects", while dieting to lose weight is first mentioned regularly beginning in the early 1920s! Young women today have the difficult task of navigating through contradictory ideal after contradictory ideal: thin but still athletic; toned but not overly muscular; breasts big enough to attract attention and look good in clothes but not so big as to attract too much attention or interfere with athletic pursuits, etcetera.
In my classes, we trace the history of these ever-shifting, unattainable ideals. In my youth group, we talk often about the pain and frustration that result from trying to live up to them (or choosing to live outside of them). In both forums, we talk about solutions. In an academic setting, we tend to focus more on cultural and social strategies for changing women's relationships with their bodies; in the youth group, with younger teens, we focus more on spiritual and psychological tools for coping and transforming. I certainly don't have a magic bullet to help either high school or college students cope with the colossal pressures that come with trying to live up to the ideal, but I do provide a history of the problem and a safe place for discussion and sharing.
Let me get to the point of my post: I've spent a long time reflecting on how my identity as a male professor and youth leader affects the work I do. For starters, I often have to overcome an extraordinary amount of suspicion as to my motives. Who, some folks wonder, is this grown man with such an intense professional interest in young women's body image? What are his real motives? Folks assume that I must be deriving some sort of sexual thrill from the work I do, or that I'm pretending to be sensitive (in order to gain access to young women) by expressing great interest in a intensely painful and important subject. Most of my students and youth group kids (as well as their parents), who spend enough time around me come to realize that my boundaries are (if I may say so) pretty darned solid. I like to think I've worked out a way to be both emotionally nurturing and intellectually provocative without crossing any lines I ought never cross.
But still, it is a bit odd for many people to have a man teaching this aspect of women's history in particular. It's not just suspicion about my motives. It's the fact that I haven't lived in a woman's body, even for a moment. Though I've struggled with my own body issues, I've struggled with them as a man trying to live up to a very different (though perhaps equally elusive) physical ideal. And so when leading discussions on these topics in either a church or classroom setting, I'm always very careful not to presume too much. I let my students and my teens share their experiences, and then I try (sometimes deftly, sometimes not), to tie their personal narratives into the larger cultural story. After all of these years, I will say that most of what I hear is fairly familiar! Self-loathing is a predictable constant, as is the desire for control. It is axiomatic that there will be usually be a lot of ambivalence about sexuality; some are desperate to use their sexuality in order to be seen, others desperate to hide their sexuality for the very same reason, some anxious simply to disappear and not be "seen" at all. Sometimes, I feel the weight of the collective pain in the room and I almost gasp.
In a way, it's easier for me to teach this material than it is for my female colleagues. I've got a few colleagues who teach women's history here and at other places; a couple of them do offer lectures and sections on body issues. Invariably, they become aware that their own bodies are being assessed and judged. One of my colleagues is a woman of considerable size, and has been since she hit puberty. She's become comfortable in her skin, but she reports that some of her students simply won't listen to her on the subject of eating disorders and body image. "They're afraid, you see" , she says. "They worry more about ending up looking like me when they are older than they worry about being happy." Another colleague has the opposite problem; like me, she's a distance runner. She is lean and petite. She's had students with different body types react angrily to her: "What could you know about how I'm feeling?" In a way, the fact that I'm male makes things easier for me because female students (the overwhelming majority of those enrolled in my women's history classes are of course female) aren't comparing their bodies to mine. They can't set me up as a role model, and they can't turn me into a mother figure with whom to compete or by whom to be judged.
I had a young man recently email me; he's just started a grad program in women's studies and is beginning to TA his first courses. He wanted advice about being a man and teaching courses on women's history and feminism; in particular, he wanted to know how I made myself seem "safe". He knows that in academic feminism, the line between the intensely personal and the rigorously intellectual is often razor-thin. He knows enough feminist theory to know that we always bring our embodied selves to the classroom. He wants to know how he can get his students to open up, to feel comfortable sharing anecdotes as well as debating ideas. He's particularly interested in "body issues", but worried about how his own maleness will affect the discussions he leads on that topic. I told him that the obvious thing he needs to do is work on becoming a good listener; he needs to remember (if he ever forgot) that in gender studies, personal narratives do matter and do deserve both time and respect. That doesn't mean turning the classroom into the Oprah show, but it does mean giving students the opportunity to share the ways in which the material has meaning for their own lives. I told him "Don't worry about empathizing. You don't have to 'get it' on a personal and experiential level. Trust your own compassion and your own intuition, and don't worry if you don't identify with every aspect of every story you hear. Not every woman identifies with every other woman either. Your job isn't to share someone else's pain, your job is to listen actively and respectfully, and then gently weave her story into a larger web of stories". Seeing that larger web of stories is key to moving to the next step, which is talking about solutions.
In the end, no serious feminist can deny that teaching "body history" is a vital part of women's studies. And it would be silly to pretend that when we do teach it, we teach as disembodied voices. We must all acknowledge the plain reality that our students and others will always filter what we say through their understanding of the bodies they see us in. They will make comparisons and judgments, just as we do. In some ways, the male professor's body is a limitation -- it is evidence that his experience has been, ultimately, radically different than that of the majority of his students. At the same time, because of this difference, it gives him the chance to connect with his students without the complications that come from having the students over-identify the material with the teacher's own life story. Above all, though, a man doing this job must approach the subject with a healthy degree of both patience and humility. As the yeas go by, the stories may seem depressingly familiar. But the fact that we hear similar stories from our students, year after year, about despair and self-loathing doesn't mean that we don't have an obligation to hear them with rapt attentiveness.
Do I benefit from being a man who listens? Sure. Some folks are so amazed that a man is willing to do this work and lead these discussions that they tend to treat me with a sense of wonder. That's male privilege again -- men getting patted on the back for doing what women do without thanks. But the fact that I do get undue praise doesn't mean the work isn't vitally important, and it doesn't mean that men shouldn't be doing it.